A Couple Montana Ghost Towns within Haunting Distance of Bozeman

James Thull

Montana and the Western United States are littered with Ghost Towns. Some, like the nearby Virginia City, have been partially restored and turned into a mix of tourist trap and living history museum; others remain in their various states of disrepair and disintegration. Exploring either type can be a great way to spend a beautiful fall day.  

Your first question might be What’s a ghost town? A haunted place existing somewhere between this realm of existence and the next? A literal town for ghosts and other worldly spirits? Some are reported to be just that, but the more common (and maybe less fun) definition is that it is simply a deserted town with few or no remaining inhabitants.

So why would people desert a town? Sometimes there are obvious reasons, Chernobyl comes to mind, but usually it happens when an economy is near fully based on an expendable natural resource in a state with lots of land and few people. When the resource is gone, so are the people. Often climate is also a factor in that the harsher the place is to live in can relate to it being abandoned. Sometimes people leave quickly and others drag on over years as more and more people come to believe they either cannot or don’t  want to make a living in that place anymore. With its early economy being largely based on things like gold, silver, forests, oil, and other finite natural resources, the West was fertile ground to create what we now call ghost towns.

                                                                                                                 photo by Samuel Thomas

Bannack is a ghost town outside of Dillion, Montana about 2 ½ hours from Bozeman. It was the site of a major gold discovery, on grasshopper creek, in 1862. It seems that once humans hear about “gold in them there hills” (or creeks as the case may be) they come in droves. Of course, following close behind the miners are the prostitutes, storekeepers, bartenders, and others who make their living from mining the miners.

At its height, the town had a population of several thousand and even served briefly as the capital of the Montana Territory in 1864. One of the more interesting stories about Bannack is the story of Henry Plummer and his alleged road agents. Henry was a lawman, prospector, and reported outlaw who was the elected sheriff of Bannack from 1863-1864. He was accused of being the leader of a gang of outlaws referred to as the road agents that preyed on travelers and gold shipments from Virginia City to Salt Lake City, Utah. Plummer and the road agents were accused of robbery and murder. In response to the crime wave, the people of Virginia City formed the Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch and arrested Plummer and two associates on January 10, 1864. Plummer was hanged without a trial and reportedly lifted by the neck rather than dropped so he strangled slowly to death.

Plummer was not the only person hanged by Vigilance Committee of Alder Gulch. While hard numbers are hard to come by it appears they hanged dozens of people including a 17-year-old boy. The hangings typically occurred at night, without a trial and the only witnesses were the ones doing the hangings. Another suspect fact about the vigilantes is that they were largely pro-slavery, and many of those they hanged were anti-slavery. One prominent member of the vigilante group, Nathaniel Pitt Langford, was the first Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park.

Today, Bannack is part of Bannack State Park. There is a visitor’s center, camping, tours, gold panning, and even ice skating during the winter months. During Bannack Days and Living History Weekends actors, park personnel, and volunteers reenact the glory days of this western town. Over sixty structures still exist and can be explored. The town is also said to be the home of ghosts and spirits from the other side and was featured in an episode of the Travel Channel’s program Ghost Adventures. So if you are looking for something to do outside on a sunny fall day consider checking out Bannack. Who knows, maybe you’ll run into the ghost of Henry Plummer, one of the victims of the Road Agents or one of the many hanged by the vigilantes.

Virginia City
Virginia City, located about an hour and half from Bozeman, was founded in 1863 after discovery of gold near Alder ???Creek by Bill Fairweather and Henry Edgar. The founders were pro-slavery and originally intended to name the town in honor of Varina Howell Davis, the only, First Lady of the Confederate States of America, but a judge recording the name refused to honor someone who advocated owning other human beings and instead recorded the name as Virginia City.

The city served as the capital of the territory of Montana from 1865 to 1875, housed the state’s first public school and the first Montanan newspaper, The Montana Post, began publishing in Virginia City in 1864. One of Virginia City’s more famous residents is rumored to be Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane. She led an adventurous life as an army scout, prostitute, and performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She was famous for her many exploits as well as being a friend of Wild Bill Hickock and Charlie Utter.

Other prominent Virginia City residents included Nelson Story, later to become one of Bozeman’s most prominent residents and father of the builder of the Story Mansion, which still stands in all its restored glory on Wilson Ave. Story also played a significant role in the founding of MSU when he donated the land and facilities to help establish what was then called the Agricultural College of the State of Montana.

John Bozeman, for whom our city is named, was also a prospector and early resident of Virginia City. John was killed under mysterious circumstances while traveling along the Yellowstone River in 1867. Reported to have been killed by a band of Blackfeet it is also rumored he may have been murdered by a jealous husband or possibly even by a band of henchmen working for none other than Nelson Story.  Montana State University Archivist, Prof. Kim Scott says simply “the truth about how John Bozeman died may never be known.”

One final unique and important resident of the town was Sarah Gammon Brown Bickford who was an African American woman born into slavery in the South. After the Civil War, she made her way to the Montana gold fields and settled in Virginia City where she eventually became the sole owner of the Virginia City Water Company, becoming maybe the nation’s first female African American woman to own a utility company.

Today, Virginia City has been largely restored, much to the credit of Charles and Sue Bovey who began buying and restoring properties in the 1940s, and has become one of Montana’s most popular tourist destinations. There are a wealth of activities to enjoy for all age groups. Train rides to neighboring Nevada City, Brewery Follies stage shows at the Opera House, gold panning, and shopping are just a few of the ways a visitor can spend an afternoon. Or, consider spending an evening as well. There are a range of inns, cabins and nearby camping available. Who knows, maybe you’ll get a chance to ask the ghost of our cities namesake how he actually died!

More Information…
This is by no means an extensive list of Montana ghost towns, and there are dozens if not hundreds more available to explore around the state. If you are interested in learning more check out (literally I mean, so if you don’t have one get a library card from MSU or your public library) some of the wonderful books on the subject like Larry and Vivian Roland’s Montana Mining Ghost Towns, Ghost Towns of Montana by Donald Miller, or Ghost Towns of the Montana Prairie by Don Baker. The MSU Special Collections library also holds the papers of John N. DeHass who was a writer and member of the Montana Ghost Town Preservation Society. The papers contain some cool stuff including drafts of manuscripts, architectural drawings, and research materials.

So get out and enjoy some of the history of Montana, learn about the state’s early residents, and have fun exploring some cool old buildings or mining sites. Please do use caution when exploring on your own! Some sites are remote, lack cell phone services, and can be dangerous. Travel with friends, let people know where you are headed, and bring lots of water!